How to Pick a Real Estate Agent

It's amazing. The minute you announce that you're thinking about buying a home, real estate agents pop up like mushrooms after a spring shower. Your doctor offers to put you in touch with her second cousin, who got his license last week. Your waiter drops off a business card along with your check. Your gym contains at least 26 agents and they all want your business. How do you tell the whizzes from the wanna-bes?

Good agents do good things

Once you know what good agents do, you see how important it is to find one.

  • They respect your time. They pay attention to your needs instead of dragging you indiscriminately through homes you don’t like or can’t afford.
  • They return your calls super-quickly.
  • They preview properties, so you don’t have to tour a place that's loaded with pets (you're allergic), inhabited by heavy smokers (you're not one) or next to a night club (and you’re a light sleeper).
  • Good agents won't write an offer requiring $50,000 in earnest money without including an escape clause for your protection.
  • Good agents don’t consider inspections or home warranties “mere formalities.”
  • Good agents know which parts of town are declining and which are on their way up.
  • Good agents care more about your satisfaction than their commissions because that’s how good reputations are built

In short, you want an agent as professional and conscientious at his or her job as (hopefully) you are at yours.

Where are all the good agents?

You can get recommendations from friends, family, your mortgage loan officer, and sites like Yelp. Don't rely only on recommendations; however, there’s too much at stake not to do a little work yourself. One indicator of an agent’s professionalism is an advanced designation. Most agents who take the time to obtain advanced training are committed to their careers, unlike those who get into real estate to dress up and go out to lunch a lot. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the advanced training to look for in an agent:

  • ABR Accredited Buyer Representative - denotes a salesperson who is qualified to provide buyer representation. It requires a 12 hour course, active membership in the Real Estate Buyer's Agent Council (REBAC), and at least five documented transactions during the previous 18th month period where the salesperson acted as a buyer's representative.
  • CRP Certified Relocation Professional - requires passing a comprehensive exam that covers relocation issues related to corporate policies, appraising, real estate, legal considerations, and family concerns. Only relocation professionals with a minimum of two years' experience dealing with relocation issues are allowed to sit for the exam.
  • CRS Certified Residential Specialist - the "master's degree of real estate". Every CRS designee must have a proven track record in the business, as well as advanced education in related areas like finance, technology, and marketing. The training available to CRS designees includes a strong focus on technology and its applications in the real estate business. This certification is awarded by the Residential Sales Council.
  • e-PRO - a new certification first offered in 2000 by the National Association of Realtors. It is a comprehensive Internet certification program for real estate professionals. e-PRO holders have completed a course covering fundamentals of doing business online, creating and maintaining online relationships, and Web marketing ethical and legal issues.
  • GRI Graduate REALTOR Institute - a national professional real estate designation. It may only be earned after successfully completing a rigorous educational program that includes 92 hours of live course instruction. This designation is awarded by theNational Association of Realtors.

In addition, there are designations indicating an agent has extra training in short sale transactions, vacation property purchases, international real estate, green real estate or working with seniors.

Interviewing real estate agents

Ask every agent you interview the same three questions.

  1. Do you work in real estate full time and how many years have you been licensed? Those who work in real estate full-time are far more likely to treat it as a profession and keep up with new developments and continuing education. The real estate profession looks a lot easier from the outside than it does from the inside. Turnover is high and it takes several years of experience before an agent is as fully-proficient as he or she can be.
  2. Why should I choose you to help me buy my next home? You don’t want someone whose main advantage is “I know your Mom” or “I really like houses.” You want something like, “I’ve have X years of experience helping buyers like you (price range / part of town / with children / retirees / fixer-uppers / short sale homes / luxury property / condos / whatever applies to you). I’ve previewed ten properties that I think you’ll like.”
  3. How many homes have you listed / sold in the last year? In a tough market, that might not be a huge number, but you don't want to work with someone who's annual income hinges on getting you to buy something.

Three additional tips

  1. Avoid dual agency. In many states it's legal for a real estate agent to represent both the buyer and seller. However, there is no way that one person can adequately represent you both because your interests always diverge at some point. Ditto those real estate agents who also act as mortgage lenders.
  2. Work with a Realtor. Realtors are members of the National Association of Realtors. They have access to multiple local listing services and are required to adhere to a code of ethics devised by the association which gives you one more level of oversight.
  3. Choose someone who works in your price range. An agent who doesn't will be unfamiliar with the neighborhoods you are interested in. A high-end specialist may give you short shrift if you're looking for a "fixer upper," and someone used totransactions involving lower-end homes may be eaten alive when negotiating for a mansion.

House hunting should be fun and it probably will be if you shop for mortgage lenders first, then real estate agents, and then your home.

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